Complexity of Freedom

Historical author and my former Media Studies comrade Faye Booth sent me a hum-dinger of a question the other day. What differences could I find between the recent spate of Facebook groups created to applaud murderer Raoul Moat, and the Jan Moir article questioning the death of Boyzone singer Stephen Gatley.

At first glance, the question seemed particularly easy to answer. Rough draft paragraphs were drawn up, Blogger booted up, and my typing fingers prepared to drift and dance across the keyboard. That is until the question and its consequential matters of interest drifted into my mind as I contemplated the issues from all sides. At the very core of the question is the concept of “freedom of speech”, which stumped me with its paradoxical characteristics. “Freedom of speech” is tangible and concrete, certain and abstract. To my slight personal horror, I could not speak up for the Raoul Moat “Legend” groups without doing the same for Jan Moir.

Moir wrote, in an article published in the Daily Mail one day before Gatley’s funeral, a piece littered with innuendo and inaccuracies. Her piece implied that his natural death was nothing of the sort, suggesting that his “lifestyle” (with trademark Daily Mail inverted commas) was responsible for him dying. “Otherwise” healthy young men, she wrote, doubtlessly enjoying using the word “otherwise”, do not walk up stairs to bed without coming back downstairs again.

The piece caused a furore on-line and eventually across the country. Record numbers of people wrote to the Press Complaints Commission, which ultimately vindicated Moir. Her opinions were almost universally panned; it was an article which jeered and sneered, presuming the coroner’s report and insulting the fans of a man who had not yet been buried. Although the Daily Mail allowed comments on the piece, the tone was generally negative. At the time of the PCC response, I blogged an article criticising the manner in which newspapers are governed.

During the search for gunman Raoul Moat, the social networking sites Twitter and Facebook filled with comments and opinions. Some were sarcastic and ironic, cheering the man who was successfully evading the Northumberland Constabulary after killing one man and seriously injuring his former girlfriend and a police officer. Inevitably, comments on-line were not always in the best of taste. His letter-writing and success at evading the police hunt created a number of jokes, with internet memes created placing Moat in a Halo-style game and a 1980s style text-based computer programme. .

Facebook users did their bit by creating the now infamous group “RIP Moat – You Legend”. Whether entirely serious or not, the group nevertheless attracted comments from people who either genuinely expressed condolences or wanted to attack the police. Comments such as “Fuck da police, gd on ya Moaty” and “No police ever gonna gun u down” were amongst the earliest postings. Former MP George Galloway on BBC Question Time suggested these comments were indicative of a constituency of white, working class Britons who had no respect of authorities. I agree to an extent; the “Legend” groups and others like it show there is a large gap between the commentariat’s assumption of ‘respect’ and reality in the country.

Faye’s question asked me to explain how the Moir article stood against the concept of ‘freedom of speech’ while the Moat groups were acceptable using the ‘freedom’ defence. Nobody on any side of the political spectrum stands on a platform promising restrictions on ‘freedom of speech’. It is one of the most important, vital elements of our democracy. Moir, a journalist of some repute, has every right to publish an opinion piece just as anyone can create a provocative or controversial Facebook group. But why did Moir’s article cause so much negative comment while the Legend group was defended as ‘right’ in a democracy?

Is it an internet thing? Whenever censorship of the ‘net is suggested, the on-line community flares up in protest. Any hint of a Facebook group being ordered closed gets the instant reaction of outrage and horror. If the “Legend” groups began as articles in a magazine, would the support have been any less vocal? Had the groups been called something else – just “The Raoul Moat Group” ? – would the media and politicians gone into such overdrive?

Moir’s article was almost universally derided, and in my opinion rightly so. However in the context of the Moat groups, the derision seems somehow different. Is hindsight reminding us that the Voltaire principle of ‘freedom of speech’ doesn’t always fit when really scrutinised? Is the difference merely content – Moir insulted homosexuals while the Moat groups are almost too preposterous to be taken seriously?

Walking around these past few days considering the question has resulted in no clear conclusions. I wanted to continue sticking up two fingers against Moir, only now to stand up for the Moat groups as an example of acceptable opinion giving forces me to do the same for Moir. She was wrong, and admitted as much in a guarded apology. The Moat groups are in bad-taste, I have no doubt about that. I just cannot feel comfortable agreeing with the suggestion that the Moat groups have to be taken down when we live in a country where expression of opinions is a birth-right.

As an open-minded soul on the centre-left of politics, I stand against prejudice and censorship. So where does that put me on this question? Faye…I don’t know.